Martie, Her Quilt, and Me

Martie, Her Quilt, and Me

The Storytelling Power of Handmade Objects

The year I finished my first quilt, I asked my mom if she had any made by my grandmothers. She spread a quilt on the floor and I crawled over to take a closer look. My eyes wandered like tiny explorers though the paths of stitching and sidestepped around exposed batting. The quilt was made by my Great-Great Grandmother Lynch, whose first name was Martie. Its fabric was delicate, and whole blocks of patchwork had shredded to reveal the ragged cotton underneath. The geometry of the blocks repeated, but each was made with a new color scheme. This quilt was made with scraps; fabric that might hold the memories of the woman who made it.

My mom remembered Martie as an old woman, sitting in a rocking chair, her hair in a long silver braid. Martie lived in a trailer behind her daughter’s house, and mom would run through the backyard and leap over the ditch to visit her. Five generations away seemed so distant, and I couldn’t picture who my great-great grandma was or what she looked like. Holding her quilt brought her closer to the present and created a tangible thread of the lineage that linked us.

In an online family tree I clicked arrows, traveling through generations until I reached Martie Olive Glasscock. The screen showed a picture of her as a young woman: her heart shaped face and soft, dark eyes looking out from the page in black and white. Underneath a list of facts: Martie was born in 1888 in Bismarck, North Dakota. Her family moved to Wyoming, then to Texas, and when she was eleven they lived in Chickasaw Nation, Indian Territory during a time when settlers came in droves, stealing Native land. In 1915 she married my great-great grandfather, Walter Lynch. They lived in Frederick, Oklahoma while my Great Grandma Walteen was a child.

I began to study the pattern of patchwork Martie had made. The crooked lines and mismatched shapes evoked a make-do charm-- reminiscent of how I trimmed a little here and added a little there while making my own first quilt. The pattern was new to me and I spent many hours grappling with a ruler and a protractor to replicate it. I wondered if Martie designed it herself. None of my frenzied google searches had ever found one similar. The strings of the quilt pulled me closer to my great-great grandmother as I worked.

One Sunday afternoon a few weeks after I began studying the quilt, I called my great grandmother, Martie’s daughter. I asked about Martie’s life and what she was like. Walteen’s voice was a little gravelly as she responded “Well she looked like me! But other than that we were nothing alike.”

Walteen said that Martie left home as a young single woman to be a teacher in another small Oklahoma town. She taught eight grades in a one room schoolhouse. After she married, she raised her family far from her parents and would take the train from one side of Oklahoma to another to see them. Walteen remembered playing with paper dolls under her mother’s quilt frame, but she did not romanticize the past. She described Martie as a quiet, maybe even submissive person whose life was filled with hard work. She sewed lots of quilts in addition to sewing the family’s clothes, caring for the children, and doing the cooking.

Looking up from our conversation on the phone, I glanced at an unfinished sewing project. My kids were plopped in front of the tv and most of our meals that week came from a supermarket box. I couldn’t fathom how I’d sew our necessities and care for my children, much less without access to premade food and modern conveniences.

“ How did Martie manage to ‘do it all?’” I asked.

Walteen replied, “Well she didn’t go anywhere. She was at home all the time.” Martie didn’t have much of a social life, besides the occasional quilting bee.

Several months later, after Walteen’s funeral, the entire family gathered at her house. We walked through a lifetime of collected objects that told stories about my great grandma’s life. I looked for textiles. I picked up a pile of old linens (store bought), a few doilies (handmade perhaps?), and a crochet blanket. My great-aunt confirmed that the blanket was made by Martie. The unassuming silk dress hung on a piece of furniture was Walteen’s kindergarten dress from 1930, made by her


At the end of one hallway next to the garage, was a glass case. It held a jar of red Oklahoma dirt, a scrap of fencing from a farm, an old store receipt made out to Walter Lynch, and bundles of bank records. There was an old pair of sewing scissors laid beside a braid of silver hair. These were objects Walteen kept to remember her parents, Walter and Martie, and her childhood home.

I lifted the steel sewing shears from their place of honor in the glass. Their weight was solid and cold in my hands as they whispered to me of all the fabrics they’d met. Walteen didn’t want to recreate the same kind of docile domesticity that she saw in her mom, yet here was a memento of the love between them.

Back at home the quilt waited, draped over an ironing board with patches pinned over its gaps. Stacks of books on quilts and quilt history littered my bedroom floor and my laptop sat open on the desk in front of my sewing machine. The house was an explosion of laundry (dirty and clean), random homeschool art projects, and boisterous children. I sighed as I stirred together the sauce for a boxed mac-n-cheese and my boys burst into the kitchen.

“He's tryin to HURT me!!!”

“No HE’S trying to hurt ME!”

Cue the wailing. Cue my brain melting. After a harried apology (for my yelling) I ushered them out of the kitchen with an iPad and some raisins. I was most certainly not “doing it all.”

Over the next few months, between bouts of chaos, I cracked open books whenever I could. I read articles and Instagram posts, hunched over my phone. Hungry for more insight into Martie’s world, I read about the development of American quilting, the history of Black people in Oklahoma, and the effects of settlers like my great great grandparents on the Indigenous peoples of the area. Studying history as it connected to my ancestors this way made it more personal and brought up complex, and uncomfortable feelings. I was filled with wonder at the ingenuity of the quilting tradition and love for Martie, but also sadness at the pain that my family may have caused and a desire to do better.

Again and again I was drawn into a conversation with this quilt and its maker. It was as if Martie’s spirit was poured into the seams. I wondered about the quilt’s life: sunny picnics on the grass, hands smoothing it down over a mattress, and its soft bulk draped around children on a cozy day. I imagined the day of its birth, my great-great grandmother sitting at a quilting frame, her needle moving in and out of the fabric while her thoughts roamed freely. Maybe she stitched into the quilt her worries, frustrations, or opinions.

My hands took this worn, beloved quilt and filled the gashes with new fabric. Working on Martie’s quilt was like a two person sewing circle. We worked on this object side-by-side, as if time didn’t exist. Martie taught me about her life. I amazed her with stories of new technologies, women in government, and my own journey to embrace my ambitions and dreams. I told her what I’d learned about colonization, racism, and history. I so badly wished I could ask, “Why didn’t you do things differently?”

As I sewed, I imagined our conversation, but I couldn’t figure out how she’d answer my question. Maybe she would avoid it, leaving me feeling frustrated and dissatisfied. But she might have told me of how displaced she felt as a child, unable to put down roots while her parents moved the family again and again. “I loved the expansiveness of the Oklahoma sky once we made it our home” she said. Martie told of the powerful independence she felt leaving home and earning money as a teacher. We laughed about the antics of students (I was a teacher too). While we sewed we both talked about the magic of quilting. Martie told me her favorite events were quilting bees. Women would come from their isolated farmhouses and stitch together for hours, laughing, crying, and sharing stories. I astounded her by trying to describe the virtual sewing circles I joined via laptop. Love and kinship flowed between us to the rhythm of our stitches.

I sat sewing that quilt for hours while soft light poured through the window. Little by little, the blocks became whole again. With each stitch, I gained a new understanding of my great-great grandmother, and of myself. The fabric I added would carry this quilt through its next seventy years. We learned a lot about the past and the future while we sat in that sewing corner; Martie, her quilt, and me.

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